Why Do So Many Johnnies Write Books?

April 3, 2024 | By Kirstin Fawcett

St. John’s College concerns itself with great works of the past, and yet its alumni and faculty seem right at home in the literary culture of today. The college has been home to numerous authors, some of whom have been nominated for prizes like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, nabbed prestigious grants and fellowship, and landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Not to mention the Johnnies in television, theater, and film whose creations, while not on your shelves, have appeared on screens and stages around the world.  

Books by Johnnies

These works, among others, are highlighted on “Books by Johnnies”: the college’s new searchable database of literary, cinematic, scholarly, and dramatic works produced by Annapolis and Santa Fe alumni and faculty. Ranging from philosophy to poetry, plays, novels, and nonfiction, the platform—which includes more than 1,000 browsable titles by 500+ authors—raises an open-ended question: How does such a small school, especially one without a standalone English or creative writing department, produce so many authors? We spoke with tutors, alums, and a former St. John’s Santa Fe president to crowdsource some answers.

A St. John’s Education Teaches Students to Think

Annapolis tutor Zena Hitz (A95) is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020), which has been translated into multiple languages and lauded by Wall Street Journal reviewers and rapper MC Hammer alike. She chalks up the phenomenon in part to the Program’s rich and varied reading list, which spans millennia and includes scientists, theologians, and philosophers alongside literary stalwarts like Shakespeare, Twain, and Proust.

These Program authors teach students to observe, analyze, and substantiate said observations in seminar. This process is “nourishment for the mind,” Hitz says. “It helps the brain to develop and contemplate ideas, communicate with others, and contribute to a conversation by writing and responding to the books that you’ve read. That’s the core of writing; it can’t be separated from thinking.”

A St. John’s Education Stokes Curiosity

Great books attract cerebral minds—which more often than not, are also inquiring minds. And curiosity is a key trait for aspiring authors, says Wall Street Journal reporter Zusha Elinson (SF03), whose 2023 book American Gun, co-authored with colleague Cameron McWhirter, made the New Yorker’s “The Best Books of 2023” list. “Anyone who goes to St. John’s wants to find out the answers to life’s biggest questions,” he says. “And any good writer in writing a book is going on that journey, asking the biggest questions they can and seeking to answer them as best they can.”

A St. John’s Education Instills Patience

Once a Johnnie completes a Program book, the real work begins when they begin unpacking it: deciphering The Odyssey, making mistakes at the blackboard, grappling with difficult passages. Multiple Johnnie writers agreed that wrestling through this discomfort builds confidence; how hard can it be to write a book once you’ve translated one from French or ancient Greek? This self-assurance is invaluable while hunting down a publisher, wrestling with revisions, or battling a blank page.

A St. John’s Education Provides Inspiration

“I came to St. John’s already knowing I wanted to write,” says Whit Frazier (A98), a lecturer and research associate at the University of Stuttgart in Germany and author of novels Harlem Mosaics (2012), Robert Johnson’s Freewheeling Jazz Funeral (2016), and High Jack de Conqueror (2023). “The best thing about it was having this chronological and systematic access to these Program authors—looking at the way one would respond to another and seeing the way ideas built off each other. That context becomes really helpful in terms of just knowing what you’re doing, and how what you’re doing relates to other works that came before you.”

A St. John’s Education Broadens Perspective

While Johnnies may not come to college to learn how to draft a screenplay, report a news story, or write a novel, they’re exposed through the Program to every conceivable discipline they could imagine writing about. Along the way, they discover their literary niche.

Influential to Jennifer Wright’s (A08) evolution as a history writer was encountering timeless texts across millennia while at St. John’s. “James Baldwin, who is studied in the Program, once wrote that ‘you read something that you think has happened only to you, and you discover it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky,’” says Wright, whose nonfiction works include Get Well Soon (2017), She Kills Me (2021), and Madame Restell (2023) . “I think that reading works written hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago showed me the universality of human experience. People through the ages have been as scared and strange and funny as any modern person. That’s something I’ve always wanted to communicate in my writing.”

Nebula Award-finalist science fiction writer John C. Wright (A84) says that studying the history of biology, chemistry, and physics at St. John’s has helped him to create futuristic fictional worlds as messy and complicated as our present one. “Our understanding of the world has never been static,” says Wright, the author of Iron Chamber of Memory (2016) and The Golden Age (2002). “A St. John’s education will tell you what science is really like. I think it is a myth to think of science as merely a progression from ignorance into wisdom—a smooth curve.”

A St. John’s Education Teaches Technique through Osmosis

“St. John’s is a great place to turn out writers because it doesn’t aim at turning out writers,” reflects retired Santa Fe president John Agresto, who is the author of multiple nonfiction books on politics, education, and law and a pseudonymous political/religious thriller. “It aims to have you understanding what great writing looks like. I think the person who taught me more about writing than anyone was Abraham Lincoln. There is no way you could read him and not see the metaphors, the direction of the prose, the cadence. And good prose always has a cadence.”

A St. John’s Education Is for Readers—and Readers Go on to Become Writers

At the end of the day, many Johnnies just want to do what they love—and perhaps nobody loves books more than Johnnies. “I think St. John’s, with its Great Books program, attracts people who enjoy reading. Enjoying reading is an essential trait for writers,” says Wright.

National Book Award finalist Salvatore Scibona (SF97) is the director of the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and the author of novels The End (2008) and The Volunteer (2019). He remembers spending many a Friday night in Santa Fe attempting what could only be described as an all-night reading marathon: “A group of us would go to one of the downtown bookstores and buy a book we felt we could get through in one night if we stuck ourselves to it,” Scibona says. “We’d go read it on the plaza, and we’d then take a break and have a cup of coffee in town.”

Scibona knows that Friday nights at other colleges might look, well, a little different than the ones he experienced. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “What do Johnnies do when they finally have a break from reading?” he only half-jokes. “They find something else to read.”